Highlanders tame Wildcats, advance to Division I CIF title game


Helix running back Christian Washington (20) rushed for one touchdown and threw a halfback pass for another to key last Friday’s 28-17 semifinal playoff win.

The Helix Charter Highlanders have proven they can run the ball by averaging 195 rushing yards per game this season. They also proved they could pass the ball to equally deadly means in last Friday’s San Diego Section Division I semifinal playoff game against the visiting El Camino Wildcats.

With El Camino’s defense keying on senior standout running back Christian Washington, Helix senior Xavier Van came up big with three touchdown catches that proved instrumental in the top-seeded Scotties’ 28-17 win over the fifth-seeded Wildcats.

Helix (8-3) will meet the third-seeded Lincoln Hornets (8-3) in Saturday’s division championship game. Kick-off is 7 p.m. at Escondido High School.

Lincoln punched its ticket to the Division I final with last Friday’s 42-14 upset win over second-seeded Madison (9-3).

The Hornets will need to pay attention to the Highlanders’ passing game as well as their running game if they are to record another upset victory in this year’s playoffs.

They have to heed caution, in particular, when Van heads down field on passing routes.

Van caught scoring passes of 42 and 25 yards from sophomore quarterback Ryland Jessee and capped his trifecta with a 34-yard TD reception on a half-back pass from Washington.

Van caught all his three scoring passes in the end zone while shredding the El Camino defense.

“It was great,” Jessee said of his two touchdown passes to Van. “We’ve been playing since my freshman year and we’ve built up some chemistry. He was able to get wide open. It was great play-calling.

“We had a good game plan and executed it.”

El Camino drew first blood in last Friday’s elimination game on a 34-yard field goal by senior Sam Souza. Junior Zuriel Eatmon set up the scoring play on a 49-yard breakaway run to the Helix 20-yard line.

The Wildcats padded their lead with a three-yard touchdown run by senior Mackavelli Malotumau with 7:22 left in the second quarter to lead 10-0.

The visitors would have few big plays the remainder of the high-profile matchup.

The Highlanders countered with their first big play of the game as senior Ethan Denison made a key reception on a third-and-long play that moved the ball from the 25-yard line to the seven. Washington later scored on a one-yard run into the end zone to draw the hosts within 10-7 on the scoreboard.

The Scotties made an uncharacteristic mistake on a fumbled punt that set up the visitors on the 35-yard line with 56.2 seconds remaining in the first half. But the Helix defense rose to the occasion with an interception by junior Adren Parker to quell the El Camino scoring threat.

The second half opened with the “Jessee and Van Show” to much acclaim.

The Highlanders received the ball to start the third quarter and promptly marched down the field, capped by a 42-yard bomb to Van that landed picture perfect in the receiver’s arms in the end zone. When senior Noah Horvath supplied the extra-point conversion, Helix led 14-10.

The Highlanders would never trail the rest of the way in the hard-hitting game.

Less than four minutes later, Jesse connected with Van on a 25-yard floater into the opposite side of the end zone for a 21-10 lead.

The Wildcats cashed in on their only scoring opportunity in the second half with 10:57 to play in the fourth quarter as senior quarterback Kiah Reid followed a train of teammates from the three-yard line to narrow the score to 21-17.

That was as close as the visitors would get.

Helix faced a fourth-and-one with 5:51 remaining in regulation play and elected to go for the first down rather than punt the ball to the Wildcats. Washington got more than the one yard he needed — 11 to be exact — as he slid down the sideline to the El Camino 17-yard line.

The Highlanders, after being backed up by a penalty, went for the quick strike instead of a methodical running attack to milk the clock as Washington took the handoff and veered right, then heaved the ball into the end zone where Van was once again alone in the corner to make the catch.

The Helix defense forced a turnover on downs and was able to run all but 43.1 seconds off the scoreboard when El Camino finally regained possession of the ball.

But an interception by Van with 8.3 seconds left removed all doubt as to the winner of the contest.

“El Camino is big and physical up front, so we knew it would be a tough matchup because we’re so young up front,” Helix head coach Robbie Owens said. “But Ryland did a nice job and Xavier was running wide open.”

Washington rushed 26 times for 126 yards and one touchdown. Jessee was the model of efficiency in the game by completing 10 of 13 passing attempts for 155 yards and two touchdowns without an interception. He finished the game with a 155.4 passer rating.

Helix Charter quarterback Ryland Jessee threw two scoring passes while receiver Xavier Van had three TD catches.

Van caught four passes for 97 yards, including the three touchdown receptions. Denison had two catches for 39 yards, including one catch for 20 yards, while senior James Johnson Jr. had two catches for 28 yards.

Washington caught two passes for 17 yards, including one for 10 yards, to finish the game with 174 total yards. He also had 31 yards on kick-returns.

Sophomore Travis Ford had one sack while Van and Parker both had picks. The Scotties totaled 67 yards in kick-return yards. Horvath only punted twice in the game while averaging 57.5 yards on four kickoffs.

While the numbers were not as large in some departments as others, the sum totaled to a victory.

“It’s playoff football,” Owens said. “It’s what it’s all about.”

Lincoln racked up six touchdowns in eliminating the higher-seeded Warhawks — three rushing, one receiving and two on interceptions returns.

Junior Rodrick Robinson rushed for 135 yards on 17 carries and scored three times while senior Jalen Daniels passed for 114 yards with one touchdown to senior Jalil Tucker (three catches, 52 yards).

Robinson broke one run for 54 yards while Tucker had one catch for 48 yards.

Seniors Josiah Cox (45 yards) and Jahlil Florence (40 yards) both had pick sixes.

“They’ve been wanting this (matchup) all year, it’s what they want,” Owens told his team in a post-game huddle. “We need to bring it to them. It’s an opportunity to win a championship, so let’s do it.”

Owens’ postgame speech ended with cheers from the team.

While the Hornets expect to swarm at Saturday’s Division I championship game, the Highlanders hope to deliver the sting.